The Long, Complicated History of Efforts to Make North America’s Highest-Altitude Airport Financially Viable
by Al Lewis, KTEX Boardmember
Jan 28, 2010 | 1675 views | 3 3 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I would like to share some personal thoughts about the Telluride Regional Airport and its authority, KTEX, as well as our Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization, TMRAO.

First, who am I? I am Alan Lewis, a 20-year resident of Telluride having spent many of my years in the aviation game. Joined the Navy at 17 to fight in World War II. Became a Naval aviator flying from carriers and got out just before Korea. My Naval experience left me with a civilian commercial license and the right to fly in instrument conditions. I have been involved in one way or another in aviation for more than 60 years in air charter, aircraft sales and as a consultant. I own a plane based in KTEX. I have been a member of the KTEX Board for 18 years. Since I am a member of the board only when I attend scheduled meetings, the thoughts I share with you are strictly my own and not necessarily those of the Board for which I serve.

First, a little history: Now Micetic Field, KTEX has been an entity for about 26 years. It was originally designed to help reduce land traffic in the area in hopes of avoiding the many busses travelers used to reach Town, which then sat idling 24/7 while they waited to return their visitors. It has been and will continue to be quite successful in that extent and our new airport was very popular in those early days. We were served by United, Continental, Mesa, Sky West, America West and JP Express, six scheduled airlines not all at the same time. We were and are the highest commercially served airport in the country and one of only two ski areas in the country with its own airport. In 1993 there were lots of scheduled landings and takeoffs. Air life was good.

In 1994 the Montrose airport, KMTJ, was expanded with a new runway, 10,000 feet long, and new instrument approaches with its lower altitude and better weather. Scheduled air carriers, its bean counters and safety officers quickly realized it was a better bet all around than was KTEX. It also offered facilities that could handle larger long-distance flights with bigger payloads. But it did involve less convenience with three hours or more road travel back and forth from Telluride, meaning more expense and the time it consumed. Also, it meant Montrose got the lion’s share of all the money spent on groceries, supplies and booze from these in-coming passengers. A new fact of life for KTEX and our merchants.

In the meanwhile KTEX tax support from the Town and Mountain Village and the Telluride Ski Co. dried up. The County, as a pseudo partner, had never authorized any tax money to the airport and the local Board was asked to survive on its own to be run as a, hopefully, profitable business. Continental Airlines had abandoned all the territory west of the Mississippi river; of course this included KTEX. Things were not looking good and some of us even considered giving the airport back to the Town of Telluride and San Miguel County. About the same time, in 1992, the Fixed Base Operator was in arrears and we needed a new airport manager. John Micetic found Rich Nuttall who came aboard, looked at our situation and eventually talked the KTEX Board into buying out the FBO, a situation I thought was a huge mistake, but he was right and I was wrong again. We have been in the black ever since. At least until this last year when we had to shut the field down for six months. Yes, we did lose money. But there is more to consider.

During this early period the KTEX Board looked at many ways to improve all of our services to Telluride. There were many start-up operations that came along, most turned out to be scams of one sort or another. Duggan Brown, an entrepreneur from Mancos who had started a very successful air service in Aspen many years earlier, made a strong attempt to get a new air service to Telluride using turbo prop Convair 580s. His idea was to serve Telluride, Aspen and Las Vegas out of Albuquerque with an older airplane perfectly safe and with many years in the mountains of the world. It could carry 50-plus passengers and could be purchased at a fair price. It would have been Telluride’s own airline. Known as the “Mountain Master,” it could handle our high altitudes with full loads and was actually on display at the airport. Unfortunately Duggan was not a youngster and died during his final attempt to start this new operation. His stellar attempt died with him. KTEX has continued to look at a number of ways to try and increase our service including leasing a plane of our own. But the money required was more than we could consider.

In 1996 KTEX got a new localizer/DME approach for instrument landings which helped our weather-aborted landings immensely. Our weather-abort record improved immediately and remains minimal. About the same time TMROA was formed in order to attempt to control and improve both long range and shuttle flights from DIA and PHX. This new entity was to be supported by a tax collected from the public through restaurants and hotels in Telluride. A good idea gone bad, good for Montrose, not good for KTEX. Long range flights and larger passenger loads are not a problem for KTEX. Scheduled shuttle flights, however, are a very real problem for our local airport.

Over the years KTEX also considered shuttle service from Albuquerque, Salt Lake and Las Vegas for improved passenger convenience. ABQ remains a great alternative with all the major airlines, better weather, much smaller crowds and easier access. I personally spent a lot of time and money trying to make this route work and in this time period, our manager, Rich Nuttall, found a small community airport grant of $300,000 to try and work out a plan from ABQ, but we were not encouraged by the TMRAO Board. Eventually we had to vote down the plan and returned the money to the grantor.

During the interim we have paved our parking lot, built a number of new hangars, improved all of our old operating equipment, added several new and better pieces, built a self serve fuel module and shelters for our trucks, better deicing equipment, much improved pilots area, passenger waiting areas, added more toilets and computer access. Also we have managed to keep elk and deer off the runway, drilled a new well for an adequate water supply, painted all the buildings and fixed leaking roofs. We have hired Pat Lee, with years of experience in the airline industry as a paid consultant to help us in many capacities and promotions with all the scheduled airlines. We have also attended nationally recognized annual aviation events with booths touting Telluride and KTEX. All this with no financial help from TRMAO or any funds from our no longer local benefactors, only dollars from our new and profitable business, again thanks to our Board’s decision to hire Mr. Nuttall.

At one time KTEX, on its own, offered Great Lakes incentives to help cover their expenses for an early morning departure to DIA. This early flight would enable local passengers to arrive in DIA early enough to fly back east or west and make better use of their time. Great Lakes accepted our terms which included free overnight accommodations and free transportation for their crews and aircraft, but the airline could not afford the loss of the airplane and crew for the overnight stay, creating problems that were too expensive for Great Lakes. Great Lakes has been the backbone of our shuttles to DIA. We appreciate having them and are in their debt. As a Board we have not yet been able to convince them to increase their flights. Much needed subsidies from TMRAO might change their minds, but none have been forth coming.

In 2000 the FAA asked us to consider a plan to make a safer airport. We hired an engineering firm to design and eventually oversee the planned improvements. Readers must be pretty familiar with the results so far, which will be finished in 2010, ten years since it had been first requested. In the third phase and still to be added are the e-mass plane stoppers. These will keep aircraft from overrunning the ends of the runways. When first suggested by our manager, the idea was turned down by the FAA, but in the final analysis, all agreed the procedure might be able to save lives. This last, a safety first for a small mountain runway. The FAA pays for such improvements from user funds and taxes collected from airline passengers and taxes from all aviation products, in a fund for just such safety improvements. To help pay for this multi-million dollar project, KTEX had to save, over a long period of time, from our profits, over two and a half million dollars as our matching share. The State of Colorado has awarded us a number of grants to help complete the safety work. What remains in our budget is hardly enough to cover this final phase and a number of other safety projects we must consider to complete the job. All of our surplus funds are spoken for.

In order to keep our FAA funding, KTEX must handle at least 10,000 scheduled airline enplanements per year. We are coming perilously close to that number today. In 1994 we had 63 based aircraft and 27793 airline enplanements. In 2008 we had 43 based aircraft and 14037 airline enplanements. In 2009 we have had a period of six months of no income and no enplanements because we have been closed. With the present economy, who knows whether we can increase our enplanements or if they will go down further? With or without the cooperation of TMRAO, it is our boardmembers’ fiduciary duty to keep KTEX alive and well, to continue our programs for a safer and more viable airport. We will do whatever we must to keep our airport profitable and our scheduled airline flight numbers growing. Our new Micetic Field will, when completed in 2010 and with its new runway design category, going from a B-3 to a D-3, allowing us to use a Q-400 turbo prop aircraft carrying 76 passengers. We can and will, again with or without financial help from TMRAO, make every effort to increase service to our new airport. Such efforts are our only reason for being.

In 2008 as well as in earlier years the Colorado Department of Transportation issued a report on airports in the State and their financial impact on their regions as an economic engine. These reports have changed for the better in the years studied. From 1998 thru 2008, airport related jobs in Telluride went from 1483 jobs, $25M in wages and $74M in economic activity. In 2008 there were 1453 jobs, $44M in wages and $140M in economic activity all related to KTEX. These are “millions of dollars, folks,” as John Micetic might say. Montrose has taken its toll and that is understandable. Copies of the full report may be found at the airport.

Almost finally, I have a bone to pick with TMRAO. For some reason, which I have not been able to figure out, KTEX has almost never been in tune with this organization. We, KTEX, have lost millions of dollars worth of air service and income because of their unwillingness to keep KTEX in their considerations. With almost $4 million in the bank, money mostly from Telluride’s already overtaxed citizens and our guests, it baffles me why KTEX is being ignored. Ninety-two percent of monies spent, it is reported, go to Montrose, eight percent may go to KTEX. Because of secrecy on their part, it is hard to know just how much help they may have offered us. Dirk DePagter mentioned transparency as one of his concerns with TMRAO. It is reported that 86 percent of the tax money collected comes from Telluride locals and guests. Does 14 percent of the money actually come from Montrose, or are their contributions from three counties, Crested Butte, Gunnison, etc.? I would like to commend Scott Stewart as member of our board. In my opinion, he has, as a member of both boards, done a good job for us as well as TMRAO, with little double-talk and lip service when compared to some of our other reps from TMRAO. But he is helpless if the majority of his own Board votes against any financial help for KTEX that he might think would be useful.

I am sure public opinion assumes KTEX is getting a reasonable share of the $4 million-plus that TMROA has in the bank; however, it does not appear that way. Even though, in these days we talk about trillions, a million is not chicken feed. It would seem our elected officials would be interested in that $4 million. Where it really comes from and for whom it is not being spent. The perennial question: Why is it not helping KTEX?

The recent removal of Dirk DePagter from TMROA Board reminds me that I too can be removed for many of the same reasons he was accused of. If so, so be it. I have always felt, as a member of airport’s board, it is our duty to enhance the effectiveness and safety of our regional airport in any way we can, while sitting at a called meeting or in private practice. Much of what our board has accomplished has been because of the leadership Airport Manager Rich Nuttall has offered us.

Finally, KTEX is our flying passengers’ window on the world, a method of transportation ten minutes from the Town of Telluride’s center that allows us to fly anywhere on the continent or the globe. The airport’s board has no choice but to continue its best efforts to make it all work for our community. KTEX will not go away even if it loses its FAA funding. KTEX is, and will remain a safe and viable “air port” to our world.

Remembering please, this is only one man’s opinion and of course, as George used to say, I could be totally wrong.
Comments
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just a thought...
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April 21, 2010
Thank you for th every informative article. Well layed out and to the point. as someone "involved" here at KMTJ since 1996 I can speak from my personal observations of both KTEX and KMTJ. As someone who sees the tourist, second home and business people arriving and departing Montrose at all hours of the day and night I can speak from what only I have seen over the years. Those that have flown into TEX and that now fly out of MTJ most of the time won't go back because of the "attempted" landing when it shouldn't have been tried. They get off the plane clutching their stomach asking for the bathroom after they diverted here. Now those days have changed with diversions to Cortez, Durango and Grand Junction, we here at MTJ don't see many TEX people that "tried" to fly in close to home. I can't imagine the drive from from the first two cities let alone GJT to TEX, what convenience is that? Yes, we get subsidized here at MTJ, but how much money is actually spent if our load factors are in the 80% range. Of course this is information we on the ground don't get, but those of you on "the board" do have this info, maybe that is why money is still allocated to MTJ for service. In the 14 years here I can count on one hand the days where we have been closed for hours, not days, because of weather. Yes we have taken our share of delays, but we have also picked up other airports strays! It has to be a balance...we here at MTJ need to have the guarantee, just as Telluride needs to have the large amount of tourists come in, summer and winter, to subsidize the way we live. Just a thought. DJ
THCPA
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January 29, 2010
Yes, the TMRAO corporate welfare to Montrose and its serving airlines is crap.

I have an idea..let the free market work and quit subsidizing either airport...

frequent visitor
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January 29, 2010
Great article. I too, am perplexed why there is little to no service into TEX. There is no doubt all the focus is in Montrose. I would come a lot more if there were more frequent affordable flights into TEX. Montrose is a major trip and cost in comparison. In good old days we would ski all day and drive up to airport for the last flight. Now that ticket is up to $900, FOR A BEER CAN PLANE? If the town won't help you guys, you should help yourselves, what you have today at TEX is not air serivce.